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30:4, Reviews PLAYWRIGHT OSCAR WILDE Katharine Worth. Oscar Wilde. London: Macmillan, 1983. £11.00 It is a remarkable irony that Oscar Wilde's "canonical" stature as a playwright did virtually nothing to generate a sustained examination such as this one by Professor Worth long ago. This overdue book on Wilde's drama enjoys the lonely position of being the first affordable and accessible full-length study since Alan Bird's The Plays of Oscar Wilde (1977) to focus exclusively on the plays. Less taste-oriented than Bird's evaluative endeavour, her argument is simple but provocative: Oscar Wilde's theatrical achievement has been underestimated and misunderstood. What lends weight to this claim, and justifies the book's presence in the Macmillan Modem Dramatist series, is Worth's considerable background in theatre studies. Although some of her readings are slightly questionable, they rarely, if ever, give more offence than the typographical enor on the first page. Elaborating on the thesis developed in her previous book The Irish Drama from Yeats to Beckett (1978), Worth asserts that Wilde shared with other Anglo-Irish writers a European disposition, anticipating and originating many elements of modem theatre. She argues persuasively by placing WUde in biographical and theatrical contexts to establish a working model of the aesthetic principles governing the plays, which she wisely refuses to treat as second-rate biographies , incidental pieces in a total oeuvre or packages of cute apothegms. Her decision to stay within the rubric of documenting Wilde's evolution as a playwright benefits the reader, for the chronological order of her analyses not only includes the lesser-known plays, it gives some idea of how his dramatic works form a cohesive matrix of ideas and theatrical techniques. The first chapter, devoted to Vera, or the Nihilists, is a fair representation of her expository method. She frames her discussion with Wilde's own interest in Russian NihiUsm, speculating that Czar Alexander II and the NihUist Vera Figner may have been the historical inspirations for the play's czarevitch and heroine. She mentions Nicholas Chemyevsky's What is to be done? as a possible Uterary source for WUde's characterisation of Vera. She then compares the play to the various works of Mussorgsky, Sardou, Glinka and Verdi to complete the contextual layering necessary for discouraging a facile dismissal of the obscure play. Yet she prudently avoids lapsing into a rabid defence of Wilde's early effort, preferring instead to maintain her critical balance: "This is not a case of neglected masterpiece. Yet the play has much interest" (36). The "interest" of the play is primarily theatrical: its use of symboUc staging, colour schemes, setting and costumes, all of which she sees as indicators of Wilde's incipient movement towards "total theatre." Her methodology works equally well in the chapter on The Duchess of Padua. After acknowledging its Shakespearean texture, she identifies its debt to Shelley's The Cenci, from which it probably acquired its fierce endorsement of 514 30:4, Reviews freedom. She takes the reader through the play as a director would with actors, and displays a surprising fascination with the psychology of the characters which, if nothing else, demonstrates her point that Wilde's characters are both stylised and real: never one at the expense of the other. Once again her judgment achieves harmony through its even perspective: "This is the one completed play of WUde's which can scarcely be imagined in a modem performance . ... it retains interest as a revelation of Wilde's thinking on themes which were important to him and on the staging methods which he hoped would realise them" (39). Echoing her treatment of Vera, she holds that the "interest " of the play is Wilde's audio-visual sense, most notably his handling of the play's Ughting and sound effects. Her discussion of Salomé is particularly engaging in its illustration of Wilde's uniqueness as the only late Victorian playwright to have written a symbolist play. Its greatness, she argues, is dependent on its synthesis of the styUsed and the mimetic. On the level of stylisation, she shows how heavüy it felt the influence of Maeterlinck's La Princesse Maleine, especially in...


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